The second important thing in creating JOY is SILENCE.
I had planned to make a 24-hours silent retreat at Madonna House in Roanoke, Virginia on a poustinia, as they call it, a trip to the desert. This day, however, began with several family demands on my time, and bad weather notwithstanding, I had to cancel.
In search of direction
I had recently retired. It was not expected. My plans had always been to work for as long as I could. “Retire? Why?” I would ask myself whenever someone mentioned it. It seemed to me that it meant throwing-in the towel. One of my brothers was fond of saying, “I am looking forward to the big R.” Most of the people who I knew the big “R” meant free time to play, travel, read, socialize, pamper oneself, in short, act young again free of responsibility, but with money.
I have been blessed with many opportunities to travel throughout the world with my work. Granted that most of my travels were to war- torn places, to the poorest areas to aid the sick, and the internally displaced by civil wars. In the process, however, I had my share of hobnobbing with the rich, the powerful, the glamorous people, and the elite in terms of education, wealth, and intellect. I used to pride myself in my ability to feel at home with all these groups, but I felt most at awe and intrigued with the simple villagers of the dry Sahelian hinterlands of West Africa than with any other group, but this is another story.
Retirement with a purpose
The idea of my retirement began to serenade me in fall 2011. In fact it was a melody so sublime that I did not recognize it for what it was. I kept listening hard to discern what it could be. Perhaps it was something supernatural, something unexpectedly delicious. I planned this poustinia to spend a day listening to God. I wanted Him to tell me what was this retirement all about and what did he want me to do. I did not want to play guessing game with God. I told several people of my intention to do the poustinia and why, and asked them to pray for me.
Figuring out God’s plan for me
For several months I had developed a habit of beginning each year or a season by drawing a line on a blank page of my journal. Two columns with the headings:
Irma’s plans for Irma
God’s plans for Irma.
At the end of the designated time period, Irma’s plans for Irma column would be full of things to do while God’s plans for Irma column would be blank. At the end of that designated time period I would look back and see what actually took place in my life, and I would fill-in God’s column with those things. After a while, I added a third column, with the heading: What is taking place in Irma’s life. Most the time the more mundane things that I had written in my column appeared in God’s column (things that actually took place), and often than not, looking at the big picture in retrospect, my life was taking a different direction looking at the God’s column from the things in my own column. The reason that I was doing this was because I really wanted to know what God’s plans were for me. I really wanted to do God’s will, and how do you know what God’s will is? According to Mother Angelica founder of EWTN, if it has happened or it is happening than it is God’s will—the simplest answer to this question that I have ever heard. It suited me just fine.
If things had progressed according to my column I would still, perhaps, be out there teaching, consulting, researching, writing and administering. Since the time when I began to compare my column to God’s I felt that doors were gently closing for me in my place of employment and in my field in general. But with each closing of a door there was a gentle breeze that left me refreshed and taking me elsewhere. I was happy even to the point of jubilation. So, on December 7th 2012, I gave my last lecture. I had been preparing my students for this very special lecture, but as God would have it, I ended up spending much of my time re-explaining some of the basic points to do with their final research papers. At the end, I said only a quarter of what I had planned, and looking back my last lecture turned out even better than of what I had planned. My students received from me the information that they needed plus a little more. To the end, it was all about them and not about me.
Learning to listen
My husband is a very quiet man who likes to talk. This may seem as an oxymoron, but not really. He has a quiet demeanor. He is not like the type to initiate a conversation, but once you get him started it is hard to get him to stop. At home, his best talking time is when he first gets up in the morning, while sipping his cup of coffee. I am not a morning person. I like to have my cup of coffee in silence. But, I’ve learned to sit quietly nursing my hot cup of coffee while giving him all the attention that I can. I hardly talk. I just continue to give him the bodily feedback that I was listening. I offer this time with my husband to God. This is new! For the longest time I would fake the attention while in my head I planned the activities of my own day. Often, he would catch me when I would ask him a question which he had five minutes early discussed. He would get angry and say, “I might as well shut up. I just told you that.” Sheepishly, I would mumble an “I am sorry” or get into my defensive mode. We act like this with God and expect Him to answer our prayers and for Him to let us know what He has in mind for us. Like with my husband, or anyone else, we need to make a concerted effort to listen to God. He thirsts for our love and attention.
Poustinia derailed and reclaimed!
So, it was in this spirit that I scheduled the poustinia. When I called Madonna House and began apologizing left and right, Beth one of the consecrated women said, “Sweetheart, leave it to God. It is all right.” In fact, I had decided that already, so I was apologizing more to her than to God. First of all I am a mother and wife. Both roles are very important to God, and yet, I knew that God did not wish for me to spend that day as usual. So, I immediately took care of the two semi-emergencies of my daughters, did the errand that my husband said needed to be done immediately, and then I declared to my daughters,
“I am going to my bedroom for my retreat. Unless there is something very, very important happening don’t disturb me. Also I do not want to hear radio, television or other chatter.”
They looked at me befuddled, but just nodded their heads. I did not use the telephone or the internet that day. I spent the 24-hour day as I would had at the Madonna House. I read and meditated on scripture. I did mental prayer, prayed the Divine Office, prayed the rosary and read other religious articles in the style of ‘lectio divina,’ and fasted. I wrote in my journal, drew and enumerated my column and God’s column and even sang quietly in thanksgiving to God. I went to the kitchen around 4 pm and prepared supper and set the table for my family and returned to my room. At about 6 pm, my husband came home from work, and met me in the bedroom, and began to tell me the news of his day. I gently said to him, “I am making my retreat here. I cannot speak to you until tomorrow.” He gave me an amusing, but understanding look and left.
A night of listening
I did not sleep that night. I was neither restless nor tired. I kept musing on God’s creation, his love, generosity, wisdom, patience, and mercy. I heard God on the closing of the doors as my daughters got up to go to kitchen and bathroom; I heard God in the scratching of our cat at the door; I heard God on the rhythmic breath of my husband lying next to me; I heard God in the howling of a dog outside; my room and heart was full of God. I thought that I would die of too much of God’s presence in me and around me. I got up with the first light of dawn and there He was in all His Glory.
What of my poustinia?
I took a day off to go to the desert. We need to do this as often as we can, and this going to the desert needs to take place every day. We need to carve out a small space every day to be in silence and be attentively listening to God. Disconnect from the noise of the world often, and at every opportunity. As a Secular Discalced Carmelite, I do this every day.
What have I learned and experienced?
God did not and has not told me, as He has spoken to many holy men and women, specifically what His plans are for me. What I know is this:
Learning God’s language
Conversing with God is like conversing with those who you love, but we need to learn to speak His language—SILENCE. Like the example of listening to my husband, we need to be attuned to God, and make ourselves available to Him. We need to desire the communication and we need to work on it.
More on SILENCE next time
 Madonna House Apostolate is a family of Christian lay men, women, and priests striving to incarnate the teaching of Jesus by forming a community of love. It is a Public Association of the Christian faith within the Roman Catholic Church. (www.madonnahouse.org).
 Russian for desert
 Mental prayer is a form of prayer recommended in the Catholic Church whereby one loves God through dialogue; meditating on God’s word and contemplating on His face. It is a time of SILENCE focused on God. Mental Prayer is the preferred prayer form of the Order of Discalced Carmelites (Priests, Nuns and Seculars).
 Divine Office - Liturgy of the Hours, Work of God or Canonical hours, often referred to as the Breviary. It is the official set of prayers “making the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer”. It is recited daily by Catholic clergy, and all religious, and recommended for all the laity.
 The Rosary is a Catholic Church prayer form with the purpose to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries (the joyful, the sorrowful, the glorious and the luminous) in the history of our salvation.
 Lectio Divina is a Latin expression that refers to a method of prayer resumption of Judaic model developed by the Fathers of the Church. It involves spiritual reading exercise (lectio) based on text from the Bible, the Psalms or works of Christian authors, running to reflection (meditatio) and continues with conversation with God (oratio) ending with listening to God (contemplatio-silent listening).
 According to St. Teresa of Avila with a “very resolute determination”, in other words, to persevere until reaching the end. The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila, ICS Publications, Washington, DC, ISBN:0-935216-70-7
Creating a welcoming environment
Gratitude for all things that happen (good, bad, or indifferent) is the first step in the path to a joyful heart—the joy that is lasting and deep.
We Americans, celebrated Thanksgiving. Historically, a legal holiday, and a day appointed for giving thanks for divine goodness. Families come, from near and far, to gather together and sit around the table of plenty. In these gatherings families catch up with each other’s lives, sing, talk, and reminisce. There is an overall feeling of ‘wellbeing’ that is not only brought about by a belly full, a mind dulled by choice liquours, but also by this indescribable feeling of oneness, peace, and belonging. The importance of the family unity overwhelm us. This is the real stuff. There is nothing else that beats it.
HOWEVER, often in these gatherings, the ugliness of the world seeps in.
Last November (2015), I was driving home, and I was listening to a NPR program. They were discussing the imminent American Thanksgiving Day and how they were going to manage the disagreements, heated discussions, and outright fights that often take place when families gather.
The world of today is indeed divided into so many factions (political, economic, religious, and other social/cultural issues) that to keep peace and the spirit of Thanksgiving, it has to be managed, but HOW?
The choices were:
1) Keep quiet and don’t give your true opinion on a subject that you know is bound to create an uproar;
2) Do not bring these issues to the table. At the table enjoy the food, the beauty, and feast your senses with the aromas, the colors, the tastes, and the warmth of human touch that is brought before you;
3) Enjoy each and everyone in the family gathering;
4) If you must, begin to discuss the controversial issues of the day only after the meal is finished and members are enjoying coffee and dessert.
I, and our family in general, often had (have) a problem with #1. We could be “hot heads.” I, myself, had (have) great problems dealing calmly with an issue that I know in my heart of hearts is wrong and untrue (morally and religiously).
One of the NPR commentators was in the opinion that we should not remain quiet in discussing an issue that may be diametrically opposed to one’s opinion.To be quiet is to give consent.
This bit about “giving quiet consent” to something that is wrong and untrue, is a grave thing—one that has not brought, does not bring, and will never bring peace and justice.
There are so many such examples in history that those who kept quiet, falsely thinking that by doing so they were keeping the peace, allowed horrendous injustices and sufferings to fall upon many. I struggle with this—cannot keep quiet.
My confessor, a Catholic priest, once told me, “You have to tell the truth, but with LOVE. " But how do you tell the truth with love? I found this out recently.
In our conversations, let’s create a welcoming environment of kindness and calmness in which people feel they can speak freely, and this will facilitate communication and not serve as a barrier to communication.
The two components of “creating a welcoming environment” according to St. John of the Cross are:
I would like to add one of my own, (but also borrowed from another Catholic Saint, St. Benedict).
“Listen with an ear of the heart.”
Listen without emotion.
TELL THAT PERSON YOUR VIEWS AND WHY.
This is my interpretation of telling the truth with LOVE and listening with an ear of the heart.
I prayed and made a promise that I was not going to be a “HOT HEAD.” I had a slight melt-down two days before driving north to my sister’s house for the feast. My eldest daughter, who witnessed the shameful display of my hotheadness, may classify it as a MAJOR melt-down.
I sent an email to my sister alluding to the fact that I had a “meltdown”-- cause unknown.
She wrote back, “Come, and we will have some fun!”
I told a young friend that I had a melt-down, and that since these melt-downs tend to occur during such family gatherings as “Thanksgiving” that I was “thankful” that I had mine way before.
I put together some dates, fruitcake, bourbon laced fudge, quinoa, and polenta to prepare. My daughter prepared sides of spaghetti squash, and cauliflower mashed potatoes (to fool the eyes of the low carb eaters that they were having real mashed potatoes), and my husband made his historic pies of pumpkin and apple.
At last minute I packed my guitar and stuffed a book of “baby boomers” classic guitar pieces. We packed our Subaru and took a lesser known route northward. The weather was perfect.
With all the things going on in the world that I knew could divide us and create contention among the old, the young, and the in between, it was really a JOYFUL family time.
We ate and drank hardly. We reminisced, we complemented, we listened, we sang oldies and not so oldies, and danced. I even broke out in a solo of Shubert’s AVE MARIA (a decade long dream of being able to sing it). The retired and the almost retired among us compared notes about the new horizons that we were forging toward, the young professionals shared their dreams, hopes, and smiled with their new found loves and grateful for their families.
Everyone pitched in with the clean-up, without being asked, and my sister, the hostess, had time to lead a group of us for a walk in the woods around her neighborhood.
It was one of the most joyful and blessed Thanksgivings. I personally tried to connect with each person –not just giving a hug and kiss— but I wanted to hear their stories of where they were in their lives.
I believe that we all felt that deep JOY of being one, and we felt loved. We belonged and we experienced peace even though we were only a few miles from the center of the world’s greatest power.
IT TAKES PRACTICE, IT TAKES WILL, AND It TAKES PERSEVERANCE TO CREATE THIS WELCOMING ENVIRONMENT OF BENIGNIDAD AND SOSIEGO.
Give it a try. It makes all the difference in your life and the lives around you.
[i] All of this material on “creating a welcoming environment” is taken from the 16th century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross’ Ascent to Mount Carmel as presented by Marc Foley OCD in his book Ascent to Mount Carmel Reflection.